The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Georgy Kantor
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Working on law and epigraphy, as I do, you constantly come across things that are deeply touching or indeed highly amusing: from a legal discussion of who’s responsible if a man gets his chin cut when getting shaved in the amphitheatre during gladiatorial games, to a Thracian father asking the friends of his untimely departed son to bring roses to the grave at the anniversary, or a Cappadocian remembering the flowers of his fatherland in an epitaph far away on the Lipari islands. Or think of the epitaph of the Roman senator Paquius Scaeva and his wife – written inside the sarcophagus, just for themselves, and in that way too telling a story of a municipal man made good, but still perhaps feeling snubbed at Rome. Barbara Levick, who taught me Latin epigraphy, once said to me that this is her favourite Latin inscription – and I think it might be mine, too.
Many of these human stories are disconcerting rather than comforting, of course: I am not trying to idealise the world which accepted slavery, horrible judicial and military brutality, or fights in the arena as normal. They are, however, constantly fascinating – and I think it is important for the historian not to lose the sight of them behind the big structures and processes. For an institutional historian like myself it is a particularly important and difficult challenge.
The texts to which I return more often than to any other, however, are not epigraphic or legal, but the two big works of the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus, which we call the Annals and the Histories. Again, not necessarily a comforting text in the most straightforward sense of the word (he talks about tyranny, servility, and decline of freedom, and, as you would expect, shares many of the prejudices of his age), but I find the encounter with how he understands the structures of power and its effects on people intellectually immensely invigorating. It is always challenging, but also reassuring of the human ability to make sense of their society and experience.
When did you first come across these texts?
I first read them in a (pretty good) Russian translation, a present from my grandfather, in 1991, just as the Soviet Union was falling apart, and was gripped. I remember very vividly reading book 4 of Histories on the sofa at my grandparents’ place in Moscow late in the evening, and trying to come to grips with this completely unfamiliar world. In retrospect, that was the moment when I got sold on Roman history, though I didn’t yet realise it then. I read it in Latin only at university (I had only a tiny bit of elementary Latin at school), and then the fascination with the nuances of Tacitus’ language, and how cleverly he uses it to convey complexities of meaning, set in, too.
Can you tell me a bit about the works and their context?
Tacitus was a Roman senator, whose official career took place under the emperors from Vespasian to Trajan (late first and early second century AD). He was from Gallia Narbonensis (modern Provence), not Italy, and his father was not a senator: in that way he was both a political insider and had somewhat of an outside perspective, too. His two big historical works covered the period from AD 14 to 96, the rule of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, and he also wrote a few smaller works, an ethnography of Germany, a dialogue on oratory under the empire, and a laudatory biography of his father-in-law, a general called Agricola. He carefully avoided turning his critical gaze on the emperors in whose time he wrote (Trajan and maybe Hadrian); one suspects they should be grateful for that. Unfortunately, large parts of both Annals and Histories are now lost, but for the years that the surviving books cover, they offer arguably the most detailed and well-informed narrative that exists for any period of Roman history.
What is it about these works that appeals to you most?
Tacitus has the absolutely remarkable ability of seeing human realities of power in all their dread, absurdity – and sometimes, inevitability. He combines the understanding of how structures shape events with a sharp eye for what individuals make of the situation they are in. Famously, the murder of Agrippa Postumus, grandson of Augustus, at the very beginning of the Annals, is ‘the first crime of the new principate’, not of the new emperor, who is prevented from holding a public enquiry by the advice that it will ‘dissolve the whole power of the principate’ – it is a story of power, not biographies of the emperors, as he immediately makes clear. At the same time, a rare word of praise Tacitus bestows on senators who behaved with sense and dignity is made to matter, and individual choices of action and language remain at the centre of his story.
It is no surprise that his works were seen as a manual of political advice in the age of absolute monarchies, that Napoleon could not forgive Tacitus his treatment of emperors, and that Ronald Syme turned to the study of Tacitus in the age of twentieth-century dictatorships. Living in the Soviet Union gave another perspective on why he matters, and I probably need not dwell on why I think him relevant now… Analysis of power, penetrating scepticism towards any official rhetoric, and the ability to take a perspective different from his own, sometimes even a non-Roman one, as in his remarkable treatment of the German leader Arminius, are perhaps the most important things for his standing as a historian. But what makes him such an absorbing read is also his gift for vivid description and telling detail, and the dry humour, which is so often hidden within his text, and that is surely what carried me along as a teenager.
From the unforgettable last scene of Vitellius, running through the corridors of the abandoned palace, to the ridiculous moralising senator Caecina, who had a very happy marriage (and six children) as his wife stayed home in Italy while he was away for forty years of campaign, Tacitus’ writing has an almost cinematic quality, but is also incredibly dense with meaning. On every re-read you discover something new. This can make a reader quite suspicious of him as a rhetorician, and of the ways in which he persuades you before you even notice, and of course, as historians, we should always question his narrative. It would be facile, though, to think that because he tells what he wants to tell so persuasively, we should simply dismiss his emphasis out of abundance of caution. Much more interesting to think what it is that he wants to tell us, and to engage with it – even if we won’t always agree.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Go for a long walk with my children, play with the cat, read a book (one day the piles of books next to my bed will collapse, and that will be the end of me), or have a pint with friends. The last one unfortunately has to wait at the moment, but the tiny nature reserve next to where we live has been at its most beautiful this spring, and the children love playing there.
Georgy Kantor teaches ancient history (mainly Roman) at St John’s College, Oxford, and enjoys that a lot. In his own research, he works on how Roman law functioned in provinces, particularly in the eastern part of the Roman empire, and on what Roman rule meant for Greek cities. He also works on inscriptions, both Greek and Latin, especially from Asia Minor, the Black Sea region, and sometimes the city of Rome. He blogs occasionally at https://georgykantorblog.wordpress.com/, and has several long articles on Roman law and citizenship coming out later this year.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.